Rumours of a hurricane, p.31
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       Rumours of a Hurricane, p.31

           Tim Lott

  Before contacting the third woman, Charlie had experienced a sudden renewed jag of grief for Maureen and had almost rung her up and begged her to return. How he ached for the familiarity, the dull worn groove of their shared life. This attempt to create newness at the end of so much time seemed increasingly repulsive to him and unutterably depressing. He had almost thrown the rest of the letters away but had finally rung up the third prospect.

  The subsequent meeting had heartened him. The woman he met for a cup of coffee (she eschewed dinners, worrying that they implied too much too soon) at a shopping mall café was extremely kind and solicitous, and about, he estimated, as attractive a prospect as he himself, so the playing field was more or less level. A small woman, in good shape for her claimed fifty-one years, she possessed an unusual capacity for asking questions that were neither aggressive nor intrusive, simply well aimed. Charlie’s impacted life began to loosen and drift out of him, in a swelling mist of stumbling words and sentences.

  The woman, whose name was Ruth, had a daughter, Cassie, whom she clearly loved, an oral hygienist who worked at a dental practice in Luton. She showed him photographs, carried three of them around in her purse. A fresh-faced girl, twenty-one, almost blotted out by galaxies of freckles. They saw each other every week, were the best of friends. Charlie in turn told her about Robert. She had listened silently, but attentively, and soon he was talking about his falling out with Lloyd, about Maureen’s infidelity, about the thin stretch of his life. At one moment when he found himself talking about the pain of his divorce, she had put her hand on top of his. He had found himself shocked by the electrical reaction this provoked in him, the establishment of contact, however slight, after so long. He had almost found himself crying; but had held himself back, thinking the situation ridiculous. Ruth and he had agreed to meet again, but then she had phoned him to say there was some kind of family crisis and that she would call him again when it had been sorted out.

  Charlie had at first assumed this to be a brush-off, but she rang again, once more apologizing, explaining that her daughter was unwell and that she would be in touch the first chance she got.

  In the meantime, Charlie felt, since no romantic bond had actually been established between them, and probably nothing more than friendship was likely to be on the cards anyway, that he would telephone one of the last three women on his short list. Her name was Susan Galloway and she had a slight Scottish burr when she picked up the phone to answer his call. It was immediately plain that they were going to hit it off, when Charlie found himself laughing uproariously at a rather risqué joke she told him after only about ten minutes of small talk.

  It emerged that they were nearly neighbours, she living on the estate but one to the west of him, and that she knew of his shop and had probably seen him at the large supermarket that stood equidistant between them, and to which they both made regular forays for solitary chill-cook meals. They agreed to meet there and then at the café in the supermarket. Susan Galloway turned out to be a dapper pepper-and-salt-haired woman with an open, guileless smile and a slightly flirtatious giggle, only forty-five years old and, to Charlie’s eyes, extremely attractive.

  She had eaten teacakes with dainty hands and small fluttering gestures that strangely affected Charlie, who was still wearing his around-the-house jeans and the T-shirt that Robert had bought him. It had made Susan laugh. They’d spent an hour in the supermarket café, and at the end of it Charlie was convinced that this woman possessed all the attributes he had hoped for. She had a good sense of humour – a GSOH – she was attractive, she seemed to take herself lightly and, most importantly of all, she seemed, like Ruth, to find Charlie more than the absurd, silently fading creature that he sometimes glimpsed when he looked in the bathroom mirror. They had arranged to go out more formally for dinner some time the following week, and tonight is the night. Charlie feels some vague churning in his stomach as he locks up the plate-glass doors of the shop and heads towards the multistorey car park that contains his Mercedes. He feels good about the evening ahead. Nervous, but optimistic.

  When he arrives home after the short drive, he immediately showers and lays out a new set of clothes. They are almost brand new, and mostly from Marks & Spencer, which once upon a time he would have considered slightly above his mark; British Home Stores or C&A had previously suited Charlie down to the ground, but now he was dissatisfied, not so much with their clothes but with what the label implied about who he was.

  There is a pair of brown slacks with an iron-in crease, a generously cut shirt with a button-down collar in a shade of blue that Charlie thinks flatters his complexion. He wears a thickly knotted tie displaying an explosion of primary colours arranged in an abstract, apparently random pattern. This tie he thinks of as rather daring, rakish, even sexy. Under the whole outfit, a pair of plain cotton boxer shorts, which he finds uncomfortable but wears as insurance in case the evening becomes more passionate than he imagines is likely to be the case, given women’s odd superstitions about first dates. He looks for a handkerchief. He cannot remember where he keeps them and therefore has to unload several drawers to uncover the small pile of folded white squares. It leaves a mess of photo albums, old books and magazines on the floor, under which, mysteriously, he has found the hankies, but he is in too much of a hurry to bother clearing up.

  He has already decided that he wants to have sex with Susan Galloway, but is far from sure that the urge is reciprocal. You can never tell with women, he feels. They always have other agendas than those they confess to. However, nowadays – or so he has read, in the Sun and the Daily Μail, his current papers of choice – they can sometimes be upfront about sex in a way that women of his generation would never have been. Perhaps he will be the beneficiary of such a development tonight. Just in case, he has gone to a chemist’s and bought a packet of three condoms, which he hides in the uppermost pocket of the navy wool 50 per cent cashmere jacket he tops his outfit with. It is tempting fate, he knows, but he’d rather be safe than sorry.

  As the moment of their assignation approaches, Charlie feels his nervousness increase, and pours himself a third gin and tonic to relax. He goes to the bathroom and reaches automatically for the Hai Karate, which he has had for at least a decade. He pauses, then picks up the bottle and drops it in the bin. There is some Eau Sauvage that Maureen bought him but he never used because he wanted to finish the Hai Karate first. He realizes that this will take a lifetime. He tests the Eau Sauvage on his hand – fresh, lemony. A few dabs and slaps around the chin and neck. Perfect.

  He regards his image in the mirror critically. The best view he can take of himself is that he won’t look too bad after a couple of drinks in the half-light of the restaurant (dark, intimate booths) he has carefully chosen to begin his seduction of Susan.

  He has called for a minicab. As he replaces the receiver, the phone rings almost at once. A sudden stab of anxiety. Perhaps Susan is going to cancel. He picks up a pencil out of habit in order to make a note on the pad that sits by the phone. Then he thinks it is the minicab firm calling back to announce a delay. When he answers, it is a woman’s voice, but not Susan’s. He works his memory. Ruth.

  He is obscurely overcome with embarrassment, as if he is being unfaithful. She sounds frail, somewhat distant. Point-lessly, he writes the name ‘Ruth’ on the pad in thick grey pencil.

  Hello, Charlie.

  Hello, Ruth. How have you been?

  A bit at sixes and sevens. But I’m a little better now. And you, Charlie. How have you been?

  Oh, I shuffle along, I shuffle along.

  Good. Look, I was thinking…

  Charlie suddenly wants to derail her attempt to make a fresh assignation but cannot think how. He plays for time.

  What’s been wrong, Ruth?

  Oh, it’s just a bit of bother.

  Come on, Ruth, don’t be shy. No need for that type of attitude. I thought we’d become friends.

  Well, I’m not sure that on the telephone…
br />   Still Charlie cannot think of a way of leaving Ruth to her life without being unkind. He prods at the conversation for want of anything else to say.

  Are you in trouble? What’s happened?

  Charlie fumbles for his cigarettes, drops them and retrieves them before Ruth answers.

  It was Cassie. She’s just had to have a few tests.

  Tests? What for?

  There is another long pause.


  HIV? What’s that? says Charlie blithely.

  He knows the acronym AIDS, but only vaguely apprehends the condition through which it incubates.

  You know, HIV. She tested positive.


  It doesn’t mean that she’ll necessarily get the… you know. Full thing.

  Full thing. What are you talking about?

  His mind is scrambled. He is looking for his keys while propping the receiver up against his chest. He can hear the minicab approaching. Then the letters HIV find some resonance within him, some connection is made constructed of old newspaper cuttings and half-listened-to news reports. He suddenly stops fidgeting for the keys.

  HIV? Isn’t that… I mean, don’t you get that before AIDS?

  Not necessarily, Charlie.

  There is a ring at the door. The minicab.

  I’ve got to go, Ruth. I’m… I’m sorry about Cassie. I hope she’s OK.

  I think it was something to do with her dental work. She’s a good girl. Not that type.


  Charlie, can I ring you again?

  Ruth, I… I’ve got to be off now.

  Will you ring me, Charlie? It would be nice to hear from you.

  Sure. Yes. Look, I… The minicab…

  His voice drops away.

  OK, Charlie. Look after yourself.

  Bye, Ruth. You too. And, uh… Cassie.

  He hangs up. The doorbell is still ringing in his ears, although the cab driver took his finger off the button some time previously. Charlie – successfully – tries to block the thought of Ruth and Cassie out of his mind. Galaxies of freckles obscured by clouds of the urgent present.

  He arrives at the restaurant some five minutes early, but to his surprise Susan is already waiting for him, sat at a table for two in a far corner of the half-full restaurant. She is wearing a long red dress that seems to him impossibly lush, exotic. Her hips are wider than he remembers, but he does not mind. Her hair has been carefully styled into a bob. She is heavily made up.

  I know the lady is meant to arrive late but…

  That’s silly, isn’t it?

  I suppose so.

  You look very pretty.

  So do you. I mean…

  She laughs.

  Not pretty exactly.

  I should hope not.

  Charlie feels nervous, a slight film of perspiration dampening his shirt already. There is an indeterminate space between them of maybe two feet that Charlie is reluctant to occupy yet feels it obscurely necessary to do so. He is not good at flirting, never mastered the art even when a young man. He likes to get to the point, and yet he feels that women find this crude and clumsy. Already, before the evening has properly begun, he feels himself spooling forward to the scene that must round the night off. Should he try to kiss her? Should he even try to take her home?

  A waiter approaches.

  Would you like an aperitif, Susan?

  Yes, please.

  How about a cocktail? I hear they do an excellent martini.

  Charlie has learned this as the decade has passed. He knows about single malt whiskies, and vodka martinis and grappas and aquavits and a whole cornucopia of once unimaginable tastes, brands, possibilities. Tommy has told him this too is necessary to conduct successful business, and it now comes to him naturally. The waiter arrives.

  That would be lovely.

  Vodka OK?

  Vodka would do the trick.

  Charlie turns to the waiter, feeling his confidence beginning to unfold. He pulls at his cuffs, speaks firmly and without deference.

  A vodka martini, very dry, chilled, no ice, and nothing from Warrington either. Russian vodka. And for me a large whisky sour. And could you bring us some menus right away, and the wine list.

  The waiter nods.

  Certainly, sir.

  Charlie has done some evening classes on wine since Maureen left and is keen to show off his knowledge. The wine list, when it arrives, no longer terrifies him. It is his ally.

  Neither of them takes an hors-d’oeuvre, and Susan chooses roasted quail, while Charlie goes for a spatchcock chicken with rosemary.

  Do you have any preference for a wine?

  I don’t know much about that kind of thing, Charlie. I suppose since you’re having chicken we should choose a bottle of white. House white?

  That’s a bit of a misconception. You don’t have to have white wine with fowl, especially not with game birds.

  How do you know I’m game?

  She doesn’t giggle at this, but gives him a look beneath lowered eyelids. Charlie blushes slightly and returns to the wine list. He’s not sure if quail is properly described as game but feels he’s got away with it anyway.

  A nice chilled Beaujolais would go. Or a Côte du Rhône. Red Burgundy, perhaps.

  I’ll leave it all to you, Charlie. You seem to know what you’re doing.

  And Charlie thinks, yes, yes, I do know what I’m doing. With each passing minute the confidence in him grows. How do you know I’m game? He finishes off his whisky sour. He has that nice warmth within him that he always gets after three or four shorts have been put away. He lights a cigarette, sits back with it balanced between two fingers. He is sophisticated, he is a rock, he is Rock Hudson. The divorce was a blessing in disguise. He is a successful businessman, late middle-aged it is true, but getting better, like good wine. A Côte du Rhône is ordered. When it arrives, Charlie smells the cork, swills the crimson liquid round his glass, takes a deep inhalation. There is little in the way of bouquet, but he nods all the same, then takes a fall mouthful and swills it into all parts of his mouth and swallows. The wine tastes thin and unpromising but he smiles nevertheless. His new confidence has its limits.

  That’s lovely.

  The waiter nods, pours the wine. When he returns with the food, this too is mediocre, but Charlie cannot be bothered to complain. He feels Susan’s knees brushing against his under the table and, to his amazement, feels a faint erection develop, virtually the first non-self-induced erection since Maureen left. He hears himself laughing loudly, sees Susan blur into a gorgeous pattern of vivid pinks and reds and pepper and salt. The front of her dress strains against her good-sized breasts. Music plays; to his delight, it is ‘Charmaine’ by Mantovani. Now he knows beyond doubt that all will be well, a message has been sent to him from the gods. They also grant favours.

  They both order pudding, some kind of tarted-up zabag-lione, and Charlie picks up a fat bill, which he pays with a carefully displayed gold American Express card. By now Susan is leaning low over the table, her face only inches away from Charlie’s. He can smell her perfume, something earthy; if it had a colour it would be blood and loam. Charlie has drunk around eight glasses of wine by now and he feels like nothing can stop him tonight, that he is on to a sure-fire winner. As they leave the restaurant, he ventures to put his arm around Susan, and almost naturally, so easily, she puts her arm round his waist as they set off towards a cab rank. She leans against him. He hears her breathing. Charlie is beyond amazed, then proud, then philosophical – why wouldn’t she want to hold him?

  Should I escort you home? says Charlie, as they reach the rank and a fat man with a ponytail begins to approach them. It is not really a surprise when Susan says, Whose home? and Charlie, easily, the easiest thing in the world, says, Mine.

  The cab ride flashes past, as he begins to kiss her. He had forgotten kissing, hasn’t kissed any woman but Maureen for close on thirty years; it’s like a sweet kick in the heart. Now, close up, he sees that sh
e is older than he took her for, and in her eyes he sees a familiar, faint desperation, but he does not care, he is at the centre of this moment, and it enfolds him and cossets him, package-holiday sun in winter.

  At the door to his house, he pays the cab and fumbles the key in the lock. She removes his coat, he removes his jacket. They do not speak as they head up to the bedroom. Charlie retreats to the bathroom and scrubs his teeth and carefully folds up his clothes and puts on a pair of pyjamas. When he returns to the bedroom, he sees that Susan is already under the covers. Her shoulders are bare. She is looking at something. Charlie recognizes it as the photo album that he dropped on the floor earlier, while he was searching for handkerchiefs.

  Sorry. I’m being nosy.

  Charlie assumes it is photos of his wife and family and feels embarrassed. He peers over her shoulder. But instead of faces and smiles, there are dozens of shots of the development of the extension in the old house, catalogued with comments from the first brick laid. ‘Here we go! The “great bodge” begins!’

  He flushes.

  Sorry. I’m a bit boring, I suppose.

  No, you’re not.

  With a wonderful shock, he registers that she is naked. Suddenly he recognizes that his pyjamas are absurd and, in her full gaze, he removes them. He is already half erect. She is smiling, turning back the covers. He thinks he has never seen anything so beautiful in his life, although her skin is stretched in places, and although her belly sags, and although her breasts are smaller than he had expected, having been artificially accentuated, he presumes, by her brassiere.

  They embrace and begin to kiss. He tastes his own toothpaste mix with her odd aniseed taste – mouthwash, he assumes. His erection grows. He moves his finger to between her legs. There is an astonishing moistness there, and a fleshiness that Maureen never had, a lushness, a generosity. Her clitoris, its soft topography prominent and clear under his finger, is swollen.

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